Can 'Total Football' work in organisations?
January 27, 2016


Football in the 70's shall forever be remembered for three things: tight shorts, hairy players, and Total Football.
The Dutch national football team, pioneering exponents of 'totaalvoetball', dominated the era and made it to two of the three World Cup finals that decade as back-to-back finalist in 1974 and 1978. Unfortunately, they lost both matches to West Germany and Argentina respectively, making them the most successful national side to never win the World Cup.
So what is Total Football? The football experts on Wikipedia define it as "an influential tactical theory of football in which any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in a team". In layman terms, it is when everyone in the team is good enough to play anywhere on the pitch. In other words the exact opposite of how Manchester United are playing this season.
The concept is, on paper, an interesting prospect. And history has proven that it can work wonders. Ajax Amsterdam who were staunch believers of the system recorded 100% home wins throughout two seasons in 1971 - 1973. That's almost 50 wins over three years. More games than my beloved Malaysian national team have won in 30 years.
We don't hear much about Total Football these days. The game has evolved so much and the advent of technology has allowed teams to develop a wide variety of tactics to make themselves less predictable. We can still however see remnants of Total Football in modern football. Its possessive approach, for example, has laid the foundation for Barcelona’s infamous ‘tiki-taka’ football, which is basically Total Football with a lot of showboating.
But what made Total Football so effective in its heyday? One would only need to look just a little bit deeper into the philosophy behind it to find the answer. The elements required to successfully execute this tactic lead to three key attributes that are vital not only to football teams, but also organisations.
Discipline
Just as the name suggests, Total Football requires everyone in the team to have full awareness of the game for the entire 90 minutes. This demands focus, concentration, and complete alignment to the team strategy, while adjusting to the flow of the game. There’s simply no room to slack off, and players need to strike a balance between sticking to the initial plan and adapting themselves to the dynamics of the match as it progresses.
The same type of decision-making happens at the workplace. Employees are often faced with situations where they are required to decide between driving results and adhering to the core values of the company. This is when organisational beliefs, vision and mission come in handy to ensure that decisions don’t steer too far away from the desired path. Which is also why these guidelines need to be easily understood across the organisation, and written in clear, plain, non-consultant English.
Adaptability
The hardest part of executing Total Football is the interchanging of positions and roles among the players. The goalkeeper aside, defenders, midfielders, and forwards are expected to not only play in each other’s position, but also excel in that function. As a result, players are forced to fully understand the expectations and challenges of every role, indirectly allowing them to have a better appreciation of what their teammates have to go through during each game.
In a workplace setting, this type of understanding promotes a culture of empathy, compassion, and teamwork within the members of a team. Which is also why in football, strikers who regularly track back into a defensive position are highly regarded. Interestingly, some of the biggest egos of the game are really good at this e.g. Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. These guys can really put in a shift, throw their personal glory out the window, and somehow magically love themselves a bit less when they’re on the pitch.
Composure
In the 1974 World Cup final, the Dutch national side scored the first goal of the game within two minutes, before any of the West German players could even touch the ball. The build-up to the goal was gradual, structured, and very meticulously played. It comprised of simple passes between the players and while this looked straightforward from the audience’s perspective, executing it requires patience. One mistimed pass and the tempo dies, and you need to rebuild the play all over again.
In avoiding this from happening, it is possible for different players to lead the team at different points of the game. There is one permanent captain of the team, but each player needs to be proactive and versatile enough to take over the orchestrating or playmaking role in creating chances. The result is a strong sense of ownership among the players, and resilience against tough opponents who are exceptionally good at either defending or counter-attacking. As it is with football, unless you are playing against a predictable side like our Malaysian Tigers, you’ll have no idea what’s going to come your way.
Even in its decline, the demise of Total Football in the 1980s provided a crucial lesson on the importance of succession planning in an organisation. Some of the system's most important figures and proponents went into retirement, and Total Football faded away together with the Dutch national team as a 5'5" Argentinian by the name of Diego Maradona took the world by storm.
The beauty of Total Football is in the way the players seemed to be able to read each other’s mind. And this level of chemistry can never be built overnight, although it can rapidly crumble without a plan to evolve with the times.
The science behind football tactics throughout history remains a fascinating field of study with much to be explored. There's the infamous Italian 'catenaccio' or 'padlock' strategy which emphasizes on defending. At the other extreme is the mesmerizing attacking football of Pele and the 1970 Brazilian World Cup team. The one that trumps them all, is the groundbreaking philosophy of legendary England forward and manager Kevin Keegan, "Score more goals than the opposition."



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Photography by Azalia Suhaimi

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  • Asrif, b. 1983
  • Subang Jaya, Malaysia
  • asrifomar[@]gmail[.]com
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